FAYETTEVILLE -- Residents at New Beginnings traveled from chronic homelessness to living in a gated community.
The community of 20 prefabricated homes on 19th Street, south of the 7 Hills Homeless Center, opened in September. Residents wrote their own rules and code of conduct.
New Beginnings is a transitional living community, meaning residents live rent-free and work with staff to find permanent housing during their stay. There is no cap on how long a resident can live there.
Three of the 22 residents serve on a leadership council. They frequently get feedback from others about any issues or potential adjustments to the rules. Council members meet weekly on Tuesdays, and the entire community meets on Thursdays.
The community has taken a slow approach to the rules to see what works. For instance, no visitors were allowed in the first two months. Now family members can visit on Saturdays.
People there are trying to get well and change their lifestyles and don't need distractions while they get on the right path, said Tony, one of the leadership council residents. There's a gate and fence on the perimeter of the property, and only residents have a key to get in and out.
"We're taking baby steps, steady as she goes, so if we hit a bump, it won't be a hard bump," he said.
Tony declined to give his last name because of a stigma associated with homelessness. The whole idea of New Beginnings is to move out someday. A prospective employer or landlord may find a news article with the full name of someone who had experienced homelessness and deny their application because of it, Tony explained.
"We're not trying to stay here forever," he said. "We're trying to move ourselves back into the general population."
Frances, another council member who declined to provide her last name for the same reason, said people would run her off properties while she was minding her own business or seeking help.
Her life is significantly different now. Frances said the quiet made it difficult for her to sleep the first few nights at New Beginnings. She had grown accustomed to the ambient noise of the outdoors and wildlife scurrying about when she slept in a tent.
"It's a lot better. You've got a roof over your head, showers, free laundry," she said. "Before, you had to go places to take showers; you had to go places for meals. It's just a lot easier."
The 140-square-foot homes have heating, air-conditioning, beds and plug-ins for electronic devices. The community has a service building to cover residents' basic needs. The building has restrooms, showers, laundry machines, offices for staff and a large kitchen with meeting space.
Solomon Burchfield, program manager for New Beginnings, said the project exceeded expectations. The endeavor was new to everyone, including those who put it together.
The staff of seven works to support, not control, residents, Burchfield said. At least one staff member is on site at all times to help with resident needs and to address issues when necessary, he said.
Burchfield helped select residents through his past work in homelessness services. Other organizations such as 7 Hills, Salvation Army and the regional Continuum of Care also coordinate to refer people to the community.
The New Beginnings model empowers residents, unlike a more rigid program with rules established by an outside administrator, Burchfield said. Residents build common ground and deal with conflicts, he said. There have been few incidents as a result.
"I'm really humbled and proud to see how people have stepped into those abilities," Burchfield said. "People who have experience with homelessness have to be part of the solution."
Residents have access to health care on site, and staff help with getting disability payments or health insurance in order. Peer recovery specialists help residents who need it to navigate addiction.
Everyone's path to a more permanent situation looks different, the two council members agreed.
"Not every homeless person does drugs or is an alcoholic. Everyone is different," Frances said. "Two paychecks away, and you could be homeless."
New Beginnings provides stability, which is an invaluable condition to getting out of homelessness, Tony said.
"If you give someone who's homeless a place where they can be warm and get a cup of coffee and get their day going so they can think straight about what they need to do to fix their lives, then the whole United States would be better off because you won't have as many homeless people in America," he said.
Mike Williams, chief executive officer of 7 Hills, said the region could use more organizations like New Beginnings. One of the biggest challenges to ending homelessness is finding transitional or supportive housing, he said.
7 Hills' own Walker community, which provides transitional and permanent supportive housing, stays full, Williams said. He toured New Beginnings and speaks with staff there nearly every day, he said.
"When I toured New Beginnings, I was really impressed by the design of their units as well as their emphasis on client participation in keeping things running on site," Williams said.
The cost to build the project came in just under $1 million, said Kevin Fitzpatrick, founder of the New Beginnings nonprofit. Projected cost to operate it is about $400,000 yearly. Revenue comes entirely from private donations.
There were 157 people homeless in Washington, Benton, Madison and Carroll counties, according to the Northwest Arkansas Continuum of Care's 24-hour count held Jan. 28. However, unsheltered people were not counted because of covid-19 restrictions, according to the organization's website.
There were 369 unsheltered and temporarily sheltered people counted in the four counties in January 2020. In January 2019, it was 529. The next 24-hour regional count is set for Jan. 27.
The region has to step up its game if it wants to end homelessness, Burchfield said. Some people at New Beginnings may find permanent housing and be able to live on their own. Others will need permanent support to maintain stability. Either way, the region lacks affordable and supportive housing options, he said. Supportive housing includes on-site aid for people who cannot live on their own because of mental or physical disability.
"We will end chronic homelessness just as soon as we see supportive housing expanded in our budgets. We'll be able to end episodic homelessness and housing insecurity as soon as we start to see it in a budget line, not as a talking point," Burchfield said. "It's not like we're waiting for some innovative answer. We're waiting for community willpower to fund those things that we know work."
No one should have to consider a tent as a permanent living solution, Tony said. The New Beginnings model could at least replace makeshift campsites around the region, he said.
"This should be the bottom line for the homeless living in Northwest Arkansas, where you have shelter, heat and air -- not living in a tent or living in a camp," Tony said.